Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1.  We have had the pleasure of examining previously Mr Masefield and Mr Mogg but not yourself; whether it was the same pleasure for them is a matter I will leave on the air but it was certainly a pleasure for us. We are delighted to welcome you. It is the first opportunity we have had since you took up the appointment. It is very good of all three of you to have come to give evidence on this occasion and extremely helpful in the context of the debate which it would be wrong to call an historic debate but it is going to be one of the very first debates under the new Westminster Hall procedure on what has happened in Northern Ireland and in the Prison Service over the year since we gave our report a year ago and therefore this opportunity for updating is excellent. Your colleagues will know, and indeed may well have told you, that we operate on the basis that should any witness want to gloss anything they have said after they have said it because a further thought strikes them, either while we are taking oral evidence or subsequently when the written text is made available, they are totally at liberty to do so. We would similarly reserve the right to ask a supplementary question in writing after the event if something occurred to us. We are very grateful to you for the progress report which we received in terms of the events and indeed the genuine progress since we issued our report last November. I do not know whether there is anything either you or your colleagues would like to say before we embark on the questions we shall be asking.
  (Mr Halward) Thank you very much for that warm welcome. I am delighted to have this opportunity to meet with the Committee to discuss and explain the progress I think we have made in the last year in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It would not be appropriate for me to say much by way of introduction except to say that the last year has really been dominated by the need to tackle the consequences of the early release of prisoners from prisons in Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and the impact of that early release programme on prison staff. Much of the last year has been spent on what might be regarded as infrastructure matters, trying to develop the sort of prison service that we will need for Northern Ireland in the future. It is about tackling the staff reduction programme, which is highly symbolic for the service of the future. It is about the basket of items which usually go under the heading of Investors in People, staff training, communications and matters of that sort. It is about items which we grouped together under the Prison Service Review: management structure, pay and grading and matters of that sort. Those three broad topics have to a large extent dominated the work of the last year.

  2.  Thank you very much indeed for that. I should perhaps have added in my introductory remarks that we will endeavour to follow a logical order of questions but it does mean that the questions may be dotted around the room and you may have to switch your perspective from time to time. We were conscious that the progress report did make reference to a number of things about which we had animadverted a year ago. At the risk of going back over the progress report, which is perhaps no bad way of starting, would you like to say a word about what you feel the principal achievements have been of the first year over and above the subjects on which you have concentrated?
  (Mr Halward) I have to say that given the pressures on the service and the uncertainty that has been associated with the reduction of the number of prisoners and thus the need to reduce the staff in the service, it has been a major achievement to manage to keep the service running satisfactorily operationally during a period of such stress for the organisation. We have managed to go a little beyond that however. We have begun to make some progress in bringing down the level of staff sickness which had climbed to historically high levels in the year 1998-99. We have managed to introduce a pilot scheme on video linking where prisoners, instead of appearing in court in person, do so by way of a video link. In my now 26 years working in an around prisons, that is one of the revolutionary developments in the way in which the Prison Service does its business. We have introduced a prison escort system which means that instead of having to send staff out of each individual prison in Northern Ireland to take prisoners to court, we are running it with a central group, which means we no longer have to reduce the regime inside prisons to service the courts. In the young offenders' centre, we have been able to make some quite good progress in establishing a progressive regime for sentenced trainees where they work their way through to increasing privileges dependent on tackling offending behaviour and so on. Those are perhaps the key achievements of the last year.

  3.  Would you like to say a matching word about not necessarily things which have not gone well but issues about which you feel more progress might have been made but has not been?
  (Mr Halward) I can certainly identify areas where I wish to make more progress. I am not sure we could have hoped to achieve a great deal more than we have done. Some of that is further progress on things already mentioned, so we still have a very high level of staff sickness absence in Northern Ireland and we need to do better with that. We need to improve still further the level of staff training and development. I should have said that we managed to achieve 4.7 days in 1998-99 which was just a little short of the target of five days per member of staff. We are on target to achieve or even exceed five days per member of staff this year. Beyond that where I want to concentrate as soon as we can is on developing more the nature of the work of the Prison Service so that we are looking at the sorts of prisoners we will have in Northern Ireland and what we should be doing with them, by which I mean beginning more effectively to tackle offending behaviour with prisoner programmes and to see how we can work effectively in partnership with others, most notably the Probation Service, to reduce re-offending.

Mr Grogan

  4.  I want to start with this staff reduction programme and what progress has been made and how that measures up with what was hoped for and what the figures are in 1998-99 and what you anticipate happening with numbers this year.
  (Mr Halward) The overall target is to reduce the size of the Northern Ireland Prison Service by the end of March 2001 by around about 1,100 from the staff total in the autumn of last year. That figure of 1,100 is arrived at by taking the number of staff associated with the Maze Prison and reducing it a little to allow for extra accommodation coming on stream at Maghaberry and one or two other extra bits of work we want to do. That is how that figure is arrived at. I explain that because it is still a fairly approximate figure, to be finalised nearer the time, and is of course based on the assumption that we are able to close Maze Prison in the middle of next year, round the end of July next year. So far we have run two phases of a voluntary early retirement and severance scheme. Those two phases have reduced the number of staff in the service by 210. Various other means, mainly normal age retirements and so on, account for about another 160 or so reductions since April 1998. We have made quite a good start. That leaves us with in the order of 700-750 further reductions by the end of March 2001. Our aim is to achieve that by the end of September 2000 or thereabouts. On Monday next week we are launching the next phase of the voluntary early retirement and severance scheme. This will differ from the earlier phases of the scheme in that it will be open to every member of staff in the grades which qualify which is broadly speaking prison officers and governors. Previously we have restricted applications to smallish groups of older staff and in specialisms where there were surpluses. It will be open to everybody. We have put in place support mechanisms for staff. Everybody can go to a pre-decision workshop which will enable individuals to decide whether or not leaving the service is the best option for them. That is backed up by individual counselling on financial and other matters. There is also some provision for training, partly funded by the Prison Service, for staff who wish to go. We haveput in place a helpline, an independent non-governmental helpline, for all staff who feel in need of some advice and assistance. We are fairly well on the way. What I cannot answer at this stage is whether we will by voluntary means achieve our target.

  5.  As regards the implementation of the Prison Service review, I note that you have put to one side changes to grading or the rank structures. In your very helpful note to us you say you have been able to achieve the necessary cultural changes in other ways and you link the two. Could you just expand on that a little bit?
  (Mr Halward) The initial thinking behind the Prison Service review was that some fairly radical changes were needed to get the managerial development which was needed to move the Northern Ireland Prison Service forward. The concentration on security and terrorist related matters has meant that the normal course of managerial development has perhaps been a little hampered in the past. The big change since the Prison Service review was written has been the staff reduction programme which will in itself result in huge changes in the system. It is likely that we shall lose a substantial proportion, 30 to 40 per cent perhaps or even more for senior grades, which will enable us to get quite a lot of progression through anyway. There is also an extent to which one can only handle so much change at one time and with a programme as big as the staff reduction programme, which is actually tackling 40 per cent of operational staff, which is huge both in numbers and proportion terms for a public sector organisation to deal with, we felt that to throw the whole thing up in the air and change all the grading arrangements as well would not be sensible and would add to what is already quite a high level of staff uncertainty.

Mr McCabe

  6.  I want to ask you a little bit about Investors in People. I notice you say it is a key element of your personnel strategy. I am just curious because obviously I have had involvement with Investors in People elsewhere and I am interested to know how it is going to be applied in the Prison Service in Northern Ireland. I wondered whether you could simply tell me something about what you see being the key elements in terms of your personnel strategy. How will Investors in People make a visible impact on what you are doing?
  (Mr Halward) I see Investors in People as essentially emphasising things which are necessary in any event to achieve a healthy and effective organisation. I personally would put effective communications top of the list. In any organisation which operates 24 hours a day and 365 days a year it is quite difficult to get effective communications and we have been working fairly hard on things like, for example, our new magazine for the Prison Service and more briefings, more face-to-face meetings between the Director General and staff and trade unions to get much more effective communication going and things like the staff reduction programme backed up with dedicated leaflets, a personal briefing programme between me and senior staff in each establishment. There is a huge range of communications stuff which we are keeping almost constantly under review and each time we get another problem we are developing ways of tackling that. The other main side of it is training and development. I am by instinct in managerial terms a devolutionist. I believe problems are best solved where they occur which is at the most junior appropriate level in the organisation. We are seeking to build up the contribution that every member of staff in the service can make. A main plank of that is a personal development plan for every member of staff where the member of staff identifies with his or her manager the areas to be concentrated upon in the next period. That has fed into the training priorities for the Prison Service as a whole this year 1999-2000 in a way it has not done previously. In other words we have taken the sum of the training needs identified by individual members of staff and their managers and put those into the training programme. There has been some quite interesting stuff. Many staff, for example, have expressed an enormous interest in inter-personal skills training, which is a clear indication that they see that the future of the service lies in working much more closely with prisoners than has been the case in the past.

  7.  Obviously quite a lot of things around training, communication, you talked about the leaflets. It says that it is next month when you come up for the final assessment.
  (Mr Halward) Yes.

  8.  You are pretty well down the road.
  (Mr Halward) Yes.

  9.  Is it possible to describe what the exact concrete changes are that you have had to make in order to get you ready for this award and if we went to have a look now, or indeed next month, exactly what we would see that is visibly different and relates to the personnel issues which were identified in this Committee's report?
  (Mr Halward) Certainly things like the personal development plan and all that goes with it is a concrete structure, a system.

  10.  Now it is operational.
  (Mr Halward) That is operational. It would not be reasonable for me to say that we are 100 per cent satisfied with it. In some cases we are into the second year of personal development plans and learning as we go. That is in place. There is a system of training evaluation in place which would not have been in place a year ago. The management meetings and communications structures throughout the Prison Service are more overt and dovetailed and integrated than they were previously. There are various publications in place. I mentioned the magazine. There is a newsletter in relation to the staff reduction programme, there are letters from me to all members of staff on specific issues, there is a new information system in place, we are into the second year of giving every member of staff a summary of the corporate and business plan. This year we have added a letter from the Director General as well to that. There is a lot more visible sign of communications structures and training systems and so on in place which is not to say there is not a lot more yet to be done. If we get the whole service, and we are going as six separate units, through the IIP accreditation we shall be highly delighted but it is only a step on the road. You asked about concrete things. The extent to which staff have been involved in some of the developments I mentioned earlier is very encouraging. The video linking pilot scheme which is up and running is run now exclusively by a group of officers and a senior officer in charge of that with very little managerial oversight above that level. The prisoner escort system is also largely designed by a group of junior and middle ranking staff. We have had some success in engaging staff in solving the problems of the service. Other things like a garden party at Hillsborough in May organised for the Prison Service staff and their families by the Central Benevolent Fund, which is a Prison Service organisation, but again that is largely junior staff with minimal senior management oversight.

  11.  Is it right to assume that if you are successful next month and you get the Investors in People award, that will be a key element of your personnel strategy that you will have succeeded with and the various things you have mentioned in place?
  (Mr Halward) Yes.

  12.  The other thing I was curious about was obviously you are applying for Investors in People at a time when the organisation is undergoing quite a lot of change. I wondered whether you could spell out for the Committee, in fact I think you actually say somewhere, "We must also recognise the relationship between our staff reduction programme and the Prison Service review and Investors in People". If you will excuse me, I think we should recognise it but I do not know what it is. I wondered whether you could spell out what that relationship is that you see.
  (Mr Halward) As far as the relationship between the staff reduction programme and Investors in People is concerned, there is an extent to which we cannot be expected to have a workforce which feels entirely comfortable with its position at a time when not a single member of the operational staff of the service knows whether or not he or she will have a job by the end of March 2001. That is partly why we regard the staff reduction programme as so important. We have to demonstrate by openness, good communication and the sensitivity with which we deal with it what sort of organisation we are becoming. The link with the Prison Service review is that the new management structures and the revised posts, jobs and job descriptions and so on will be introduced dovetailed with the staff reduction programme. If you take the most senior posts in the service, we think it would not be sensible to select from amongst the current senior staff for the posts which will exist after September next year when we do not know which of those senior staff is going to leave the service. We propose to run the next phase of the staff reduction programme through and from those staff who remain we can then select for the senior posts in the service and so on through the service. One point I have not mentioned previously that comes along on the tail of the staff reduction programme is something we are calling Future Positive, which is a two-day workshop which we shall run from about the middle of next year through to the spring of the following year for every single member of staff in the service. This is recognising the fact that those who are remaining in the service will need to reorientate themselves a little to cope with the different demands of the Northern Ireland Prison Service in the future.

Mr Pound

  13.  You mentioned a magazine. As do a number of MP's, I subscribe to the Prison Officers' Association journal Gate Locked and I find it extremely useful because it is very revealing and it also has excellent small ads. I am not asking for a free subscription to your magazine but I should be extremely grateful if it were be possible to have a copy. I do not know whether other members would like it but I should like to see it because I do feel that this does very often shine a light into an area which so few of us know so little about.
  (Mr Halward) We are happy to supply a copy for every member of the Committee.

  Mr Pound: I am not sure everybody wants one, but I do.

Mr Hesford

  14.  When you joined the service, you would no doubt have read our report with interest.
  (Mr Halward) Yes.

  15.  How much of the service did you recognise from the report that you read and that you then went around seeing?
  (Mr Halward) The timing of it was slightly the other way round. I took up post on 1 September 1998 and saw your report a couple of months after that; it was published in November I think. I felt, if I may say so, that it was a very accurate reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the service. That does not mean that I would necessarily agree with every nuance or every emphasis but I read the report and thought this, from my point of view of managing the service, was a very helpful document which identified the key issues. It had some very perceptive points in it. It has been a valuable document and indeed quite a useful focus for us in thinking how we are going to tackle the problems of the service.

  16.  Did you feel in any way that it was unfair?
  (Mr Halward) That is quite a difficult question for me to answer because I have not lived through the previous period. I have spent a lot of time working in and around prisons and have always scratched my head at some of the problems of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, particularly those associated with the detention of paramilitary prisoners, because it is so very, very different from anything I had experienced in England and Wales or seen in other prison systems. The issue is one about what could have been attained in the circumstances. I come in with a fairly clear view about things like leadership, management and communication, which betrays my own background as a prison governor essentially. It is also true to say that I have been thus far fortunate in that it has been an operationally fairly quiet period. I realise that is a very incautious remark to make in my position. However, we have been able to concentrate on tackling some of the fundamental issues of the service. The staff of the service are greatly to be praised for the way in which they have stuck with the task and indeed changed in the last year as the task of the service has changed. They are an extremely professional group of people.

  17.  In our report we were concerned with quality of management; that was a considerable element. What steps have been taken to ensure the quality of senior staff and to enhance the size of the pool from which senior governors can be drawn, because it seemed to us that there was a fairly small pool? What have you done in that area?
  (Mr Halward) It is fair to say we are far from having solved that problem at the moment and I am not clear what the long-term solution is because the Northern Ireland Prison Service is very, very small. The total number of prisoners in the service at the moment is less than you would find in two or three individual prisons in England and Wales. It is a major task for the service. We have introduced a management development programme which currently takes us up to the middle management level of the service and we are currently working on an individually tailored programme which will look at the most senior 50 or 60 or so staff in the service. One of the elements which is certain to emerge is work by people in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, or members of it, outside the service. That may be secondments to England and Wales or to Scotland or to the Chief Inspector of Prisons. There is a major element in all that about the willingness of the individuals and disruption to family circumstances and so on. I am hoping it will also involve work outside the Prison Service in Northern Ireland. That could be another government department or perhaps outside government altogether.

  18.  Could it be with the Probation Service?
  (Mr Halward) Yes, indeed it could. We have had some tentative discussion with them about the extent to which joint training might be appropriate. We have generally looked at increasing the integration of prison and probation services from top to bottom. We have also now had two members of staff through Belfast Common Purpose, a scheme which draws together potential leaders of the future. Such a thing would not have been regarded as sensible a few years ago because of the security position but now that is open to us.

  19.  Do you think you are inhibited by the moratorium on recruitment?
  (Mr Halward) If I were in a position to design how I would like to be approaching the task of building the Prison Service in Northern Ireland, it would be to have a situation which enabled us to bring fresh blood into the service. I am deeply conscious that we have not recruited any prison officers for five years now, though we have recruited prison auxiliaries. Any organisation needs to have a certain amount of fresh blood if it is to grow and develop. In the long term it is not satisfactory to bring people in at senior levels in the service. We should be looking, and indeed are, through our senior management programme, to develop maybe not my successor but my successor's successor from within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Having said all of that, we have an obligation to staff currently in the service, so I would not for a minute argue that we should introduce a compulsory redundancy scheme, for example to create space in the service. We have to look to tackle the problem through other means.

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